HomeHomeTough weekend challenge ‘exactly what the doctor ordered’ for Maple Leafs

Tough weekend challenge ‘exactly what the doctor ordered’ for Maple Leafs

When the Maple Leafs wrapped an 0-for California road trip last weekend, it felt like a team that could spiral out of control and quickly hit rock bottom in this crazed, hungry hockey market. Not just because another bad week could have landed this so-called Cup contender in the basement of the Atlantic Division standings in early November, but because it seemed quite probable.

After a mid-week game against Philadelphia, everyone saw a back-to-back turnaround against Boston and in Carolina on Saturday and Sunday and cringed. Surely these tough, polished opponents would keep the Leafs on the mat, and the difficult questions would continue coming.

“You see that as an opportunity or a test frankly for your team,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before Sunday’s win in Carolina. “As things were going for us as a team I thought it was probably exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of Boston and how they were playing and us needing to respond to that. I thought we passed that test yesterday. This is an even greater one today.”

The Leafs unexpectedly came out of the tough back-to-back with two defensively impressive wins and swept the week away. A 3-1 victory in Carolina was the cherry on top, and flips last week’s narrative on its head.

Early season swings are a funny thing. On the brink of falling to last in the division at the start of the week, and tied for second in points by the end of it.

Sunday’s, understandably, wasn’t a pretty win. It didn’t need to be. The Maple Leafs generated just four shots in the opening period in Carolina, which followed just a two-shot third period against the Bruins on Saturday. Erik Kallgren allowed a nervous opening goal from behind the net on the PK, but never allowed the Canes the all-important insurance marker that could have been the excuse to allow the points to slip away.

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Denis Malgin led the Leafs in shots and the bottom-six forwards breathed energy into a group just scraping to get by. Kallgren kept the Leafs one opportunity away from stealing at least a point, and Calle Jarnkrok was the ice-breaker who tied the game 1-1 with a minute and a half left in the second period.

Toronto’s best forward line was the trio of Malgin, David Kampf and Zach Aston-Reese, which controlled 63 per cent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. But Keefe played an important role in this win, too, by shuffling his lines, including breaking up Marner and Matthews. It was a perfect touch for the moment.

From the hot seat to a comfy couch in the blink of an eye.

In the third period as the Leafs started to generate a few more quality looks, while also keeping them to a minimum against, the line switches paid off with clutch offence. John Tavares scored the go-ahead on an assist from linemate Marner and, eight minutes later, Matthews assisted on a William Nylander effort that gave the Leafs a two-goal lead to close the perfect weekend.

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“Tonight (the line changes were) more a reflection of how I felt about the game than how I felt about the lines,” Keefe explained. “I just felt that it was one of those games where we were fine it was a 1-0 game, but not a lot was happening for us and I just thought changing things up a bit would get the guys’ attention and change the chemistry. And at the same time it throws off matchups for the opposition a little bit. They had a plan going in and obviously it was going pretty well for them so changing the lines they get out of rhythm a little bit.”

As for if the line changes will carry over to the next game, Keefe said he’d take the Monday off day to think it over.

Last season, the Leafs came into Carolina for an October meeting they lost 4-1 and pulled their record down to a dreadful 2-4-1 start. It was something of a turning point, though, and Toronto went on to win 15 of its next 17 games.

This visit, in November 2022, could similarly be looked back on as an important game for the identity of this team, putting together a gritty, low-event performance against a high-end opponent and pulling off a regulation comeback victory.

“We played in some really close games here this weekend against very good teams, to come out on the right side of it certainly helps the swagger of the group and that was important to get back,” Keefe said.


Kallgren made his fourth start of the season Sunday, one day after coming on in relief of an injured Ilya Samsonov for a period. Kallgren stopped 29 of 30 to earn his first win of the season and could very well get the net again Tuesday when the Leafs host Vegas.

After that, the Leafs will host another back-to-back against Pittsburgh and Vancouver next weekend, at which point it will be interesting to see if 23-year-old Marlies tender Keith Petruzelli would get a look. Samsonov has to miss at least seven days on IR, and Keefe speculated he could be out longer than that.

It all depends on where Matt Murray’s recovery from an adductor injury goes. The team got good news on that front this weekend, too.

“Matt Murray’s return is on the horizon here so it’s not going to be as big a window of opportunity we don’t think,” Keefe said before Sunday’s game. “I’ve had a lot more interest in his status here in the last little bit. Physically he’s feeling very good and he’s probably ahead of schedule in that sense. It’s now just a matter of making sure he gets the proper reps in practice and things like that.

“I expect you’ll see him on the ice with our group starting on Tuesday and we’ll take it from there.”

Kallgren is now 1-1-2 with a .904 save percentage this season. Petruzelli is 6-0-0 with a .922 save percentage in the AHL this season.

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